On Poetry Reading

Earn Your Judginess (On Reading Ginsberg’s “Howl”)

Ewwww, Ginsberg? Kerouac? They were so blasé in their politics, if you can even say they had any. Counterculture just because. Horny, spoiled white bros playing at radical leftism. Hard pass.

I’d carried around that knee-jerk reaction to the Beats for over a decade. I’d heard classmates I couldn’t (wouldn’t) take seriously rave about them, from high school through grad school. Emphasis on rave.

Nothing against the stoner trombonists in 2nd period band–truly–but I wasn’t taking reading suggestions from them. And PhD students? Grow up, y’all!

Last week I read part of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” for the first time and…I rolled my eyes. I resisted liking the music. But the guy definitely took his poetic tradition seriously. More so than I ever have as a PhD student in literature.


“Howl” made me think. Worse, ego-wise, it made me squeal and laugh and pull out way too many good parts.

It gifted me puzzles–what the heck is a “gyzym”? It called to mind much of my favorite poetry with its demand that the reader make associations. Seeking “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” sounds a lot like what William Blake was doing in the mysterious poems I like best. Ginsberg took epic Milton and Kabbalah and Zen and Johannes Kepler, theologian-astronomer, and rooted them everywhere from Kansas to Brooklyn. “Howl” is FULL of Sherwood Anderson’s everyday grotesque and Walt Whitman’s rattling “blab of the pave.” What seem and are flights of fancy are also painstakingly well-observed microcosms.

I’m in no danger of becoming a Beatnik, but I am a “Howl” aficionado now (can you tell?) Reading it, besides being a great time, has given me all sorts of experiments to run in my own poetry. Reading poetry for fun and not work, I came to it with a lightness and natural curiosity that I tend to suppress as too amateur when I read ancient authors for research.

In short, “Howl” is doing me a lot of good. I was wrong to reject it sight unseen. But Ginsberg had the grace, in his dizzying inclusivity, to teach me that without shaming me for not knowing better.

Now I know a little better. To tide me over this winter I’ll be picking away at authors I pre-judged and rejected so they can pick away at my defenses. I want to earn my tastes and opinions, not inherit them. I can’t wait to find out how many works I was wrong about.

And that’s huge: I’m not often graceful about being wrong. But if I let fear of facing my prejudices hold me back, I’ll be missing out on a lot more than some powerful literature. No more.

On Poetry

Take me back to poet land: on Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex”

I moved this week and brought only two boxes of books with me! For a word-hoard-er, that‘s an accomplishment. Especially when around half the books were ones I really do reference and need with me as I study for my oral exams.

The other box was almost exclusively volumes of English-language poetry, my native language (English, that is—if only poetry!) These are the bodies of work that I need to incorporate into my inklings on paper’s back: it’s only poetry I rarely read in ebook form.

There’s no fetishism of the smell of the paper or the crack of the page-turn there. It’s simply a different form of reading than I mostly do now: for feeling in over figuring out the language. 

That I haven’t dived into any of the books in that second box in months, mostly years, shows not disenchantment with poetry, but a separation from the plain enchantment I felt when I first met these poets’ pages, that drove me to require their volume in my space. I can prove it (I say): they have survived a dozen purges of those shelves over seven years. Nor is their presence a plan or sign of aspiration: like friends you only talk to once a year but have not picked up the designation “former,” these poets are familiar, familiars, whose work I do not devour partly because I trust it will be there for the long haul, even at the end. There is a longing there of a rare sort for me: a stable and sustained one. There is a bond with even the yet-unread poems that only I can sever—a consolation, in years strewn with sudden loss and grief.

This week I mulled over. Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex” (read it in full here). I commend the whole volume it is contained in, Sleeping with the dictionary, into the hands of any lovers of sounds and play—and this one exemplifies the collection. 

We talk in any “Intro to the History of English” about short, sharp Anglo-Saxon words (though I would replace that term now with Early English) versus the bourgeois signifiers of too-aristocratic Latin (and French and Greek). In “Fancy Cortex,” Mullen enjambs them seamlessly, without ostentation. The contrasting sounds of these two word-sources map onto characters: the “I” has a plain brain before the crush’s eponymous fancy cortex. No hitting us over the head with a gulf of difference: a one- versus two-syllable couplet. Sound, while shimmering, is only sequel to sense, which does not yield to aural ecstasy: the brain anatomy, the evolutionary processes, the optical are all straight science, or at least the tangle of language is woven—a little wildly, but not confused. Or at least with the concepts set straighter than lots of science journalism, and more generous, joyful, inviting, exhibitionist.

The I’s hypothetical as ifs are wink-wink suggestions of truth, not the truly tortuous counterfactuals of Latin syntax. They drive us forward, don’t hang us up. And the mapping I asserted, of simple language to modest status, is not fixed: sometimes tizzy-like conglomerations of phrases are the speaker’s, whose inquisitive iris of [her] galaxy-orbiting telescope doesn’t penetrate as far or keenly as the beloved’s vision. These two characters are definitely on the word-dance floor, juxtapositioning in a tumble of identities.

The poem’s cool-down is both cosmic (featuring a divergent universification and a microcosm) and possibly intimate: maybe the speaker’s crush will “fancy the microcosm of [her] prosaic mind.” It’s all in the cards, especially when this supposedly prosaic poet can coin verses that universify.